Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Ip Man and martial arts mythology

I saw the Ip Man movie the other night. Strangely I've never been a great fan of the kung fun movies genre but I found it fairly entertaining and true to the underlying myth if not the historical reality of the grandmaster of my branch of Wing Chun.

But in fact as history goes it is very much of the 'Braveheart school'. Both in the liberties taken with the narrative and in the portrayal of Ip Man as a kind of Chinese William Wallace.

It did get me thinking though about the whole question of mythology in martial arts. So much of this comes from the idea of an inspired individual 'inventing' a system or a style. Common sense, and my own experience as a historian, would suggest that this has to be nonsense.

It's a classic case of parallel development: We see all over the world, in all sorts of different societies, in different periods, the evolution of martial arts. Despite an incredible variety of traditions, nuances and idiosyncrasies they are in fact remarkably similar. This is  maybe not so surprising given the limited nature of the human armoury. Most of us are equipped with the same number of limbs, hands and feet  and there's a finite number of permutations of striking and grappling.This is born out when you look at any martial art in a practical fighting situation -  they all start to look increasing similar despite having possibly very different stylised training methods. And interestingly the more experienced the practitioner the less rigidly stylised he is and the greater the apparent convergence with other styles. Based on my own experience - in Wing Chun - in  the 'last' form Bil Jee, the principles of the previous two forms are largely discarded - it's been described as  learning how to break the 'rules'.

I have to think that martial arts are the product of a sophisticated process of collective evolution over a very long period.  They are not delivered complete by a single inspired individual - whether that individual is an itinerant holy man in the fifth century, a sixteenth century Buddhist nun  or an exceptional teacher at the time of the Sino-Japanese war.

On top of this general observation, when it comes to Wing Chun history it is doubly  difficult to sort the facts from the legend because of its underground nature . Underground because of its association  with the nationalist resistance movements  opposed to the Quing dynasty. Other styles - Japanese and Korean -  carry there own nationalist and political baggage which creates a mythology that obscures their true development.

But we can be sure that in a highly stratified and static environment such as Imperial China the propagators of the system would have to be  individuals on the margins of peasant / village society who had the freedom to travel the country. People who could  spread influence - and be influenced - wherever they went. This would seem to provide the historic basis for the legends of monks, nuns and the Red Junk Opera .

I'm sorry if any of this is heresy to any of my Wing Chun brothers but our martial arts ancestors   were clever and dedicated practitioners - seekers after the elusive perfection of technique - and truth. Enjoy the myths and traditions by all means but we  do  our respected ancestors  an injustice if we elevate these myths to a quasi-religious cult.

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